SCOTUS justices in particular usually try to put on a veil of being impartial by not endorsing presidential candidates or directly involving themselves in political discussions unless it is specifically about a certain case.

For example, some judges like Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are known for strong political views. There are statistical measures to see how much a judge leans left or right.

Justice Breyer, a justice that is seen as more liberal, is old, and that means people want him to retire. He indicated that he won't do it because he wants justices to seem above politics.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was scolded by legal experts after joking that Trump was elected she would move to New Zealand.

Why are judges on the Supreme Court asked to step back from political affairs that do not directly involve their cases?

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    TL;DR - by design. Unlike the legislative branch, whose intended purpose is to codify the interests of the electorate into legislature, that is, into written law, the judicial branch is supposed to interpret the law, and not make it. As it turns out, it's not hard to map schools of thought on abstract legal/constitutional principles (eg states' rights), onto existing political divisions. But at least there is still a layer of formal political impartiality.
    – Pete W
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 15:24
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    Related, not duplicate: politics.stackexchange.com/q/59138/19301
    – divibisan
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 16:23
  • @PeteW but what actual incentives do the judges have to follow that? Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 20:57
  • @user253751 - in the case of lifetime appointments, the incentives are limited. Judges at a high level are supposed to be long term thinkers, and in the long run, if a legal principle is bent in favor of your political allies now, the precedent following from that might put them at a disadvantage in 25 or 50 years time. So in theory, the most rational course of action is to act in the interest of justice, of which there are some definitions to choose from. This is the stuff of a political theory and philosophy class, so not for me to present.
    – Pete W
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 21:39

2 Answers 2


It's important to understand that Justices of the Supreme Court are — for the most part — not merely judges, but highly educated and professional legal scholars. Like their equivalents in academia, Justices often have opinions and worldviews that are based on long analysis and dedicated philosophical investigation. They avoid appearing as though they are acting in a partisan manner because they want their opinions to be treated as the outcome of an informed and sophisticated reasoning process based on scholarly acumen. Their legacy as Justices depends on being viewed as scholars, not as partisan hacks.

It's worth remembering that Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia were actually the best of friends, despite being almost diametrically opposed in their worldviews. They were friends on that level because their frequent disputes were carried out as stimulating intellectual debates, and never degraded to mere partisan infighting. The more obviously partisan Justices (e.g., Clarence Thomas, and I suspect Amy Coney Barrett, though she hasn't really shown her judicial chops yet), are generally less respected even among the partisans who support them, because they lack that capacity for detached intellectual argumentation that marks the real judicial stars.

All of the Supreme Court Justices recognize that there is politics played around judicial appointments and court cases. All of them recognize that the current climate in the US is highly polarized, and that political conservatives are writing a number of explicitly bad laws specifically designed to prompt court challenges, so that the supposedly 'stacked' conservative Supreme Court will overturn disliked ruling and standards. Most of them (I imagine) are currently worrying about how they can address these cases without destroying their legacy as Justices and making laughing stocks of themselves and the court. We'll have to see how it sorts itself out...

  • Being a "highly educated and professional legal scholars" is generally required of all judges, though it's certainly reasonable to expect a higher standard on the supreme court.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 22:30
  • @phoog: Yes. My point was that it's different from typical leadership positions, where political figures are (usually) well-educated but by no means considered top experts in a field. Obama (as a constitutional law scholar) was perhaps an exception, but SC Justices are conventionally expected to be leading schools in law. Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 22:44

Imagine a world where they didn't try to seem apolitical, where they openly made rulings based on their own personal politics. Would you have much faith in the system, that should you end up in front of them they'd rule based on the facts of the case and not their preconceived notions? I certainly wouldn't. This all goes back to the four boxes; the soap box, the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.

The first two are just normal politics, you state your platform standing on a soap box in the town square, and if need be it comes to a vote at the ballot box. In our hypothetical, you have clearly already failed at these two, and you're left with trying to redress your grievances through the courts. If the courts are openly biased against you, the only recourse you have left is the cartridge box; violence.

It's not just the reputation or legacy of a particular judge at stake; the stability of the entire country relies on the judiciary being unbiased.

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